Scott Morgan / Reuters

A beautiful illustration of the difference between Twitter and the real world is the viral status of Michael Harriot’s attack on Mayor Pete Buttigieg in The Root as a “lying MF.”

Buttigieg’s sin was to state, in 2011, that inner-city black kids are hobbled from getting the education they need because they lack role models who attest to the benefits of education. “And there are a lot of kids—especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods—who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

Many will already wonder what was wrong here: After all, is it not a mantra of enlightened thought about race to bemoan the absence of role models for various beneficial behaviors? However, to Harriot, Buttigieg’s reference to this truism was “lying.” The nut of the issue is that there are other reasons inner-city kids fail to graduate or go to college, such as funding disparities, unequal curriculum resources, and violence.

All of those things are real. Unreal, however, is Harriot’s leap of logic: that in not mentioning those things, Buttigieg was inherently denying their existence, and that in noting the lack of role models, he was blaming black people for their own problems. Buttigieg’s transgression seems to have been that he did not mention all of the reasons black kids have trouble accessing education in underserved neighborhoods. A more elaborate answer would have been more sophisticated. But why would anyone read him as an “MF” for not ticking off the whole list?

Civil-rights leaders of the recent past would be baffled by the pique here, as, I’m sure, would Americans who don’t spend most of their waking hours on social media. It’s been widely noted of late that “woke” white people are “woker” than most black people. It is also true that “woke” black people in academia and media are “woker” than a great many black people who don’t have the privilege of a byline. Harriot is assuming that Buttigieg must have meant that the lack of role models is due simply to some pathology among black people, when actually, almost anyone who publicly talks of role models in this way intends, via implication, that the lack of role models is due to larger societal factors.

More by John McWhorter

Harriot and those who agree with him are reading Buttigieg as having simply preached that black people don’t care about school. But sheer psychological plausibility rules out that this is what he meant. Let’s suppose that for some reason, this is what thoughtful, Millennial Buttigieg, who at the time was running for mayor of a town with a large black population, actually believed. Let’s just suppose that. But: Would a sober, ambitious figure like Buttigieg sit in public casually assailing black America as too lazy, stupid, or unfocused to present role models to its kids?

Buttigieg was speaking out of informed sympathy, as anyone familiar with American sociopolitical discussion should have noticed. Our antennae must go up when notions of what an insult is become this strained. We must heed our inner blip of confusion instead of suspending logic when we grapple with race issues.

The degree of aggrievement here must be clear. I will let Harriot speak for himself:

This is why institutional inequality persists. Not because of white hoods and racial slurs. It is because this insidious double-talk erases the problem by camouflaging it. Because it is painted as a problem of black lethargy and not white apathy. Pete Buttigieg is standing over a dying man, holding the oxygen machine in his hand and telling everyone: “Nah, he doesn’t need CPR. He’s just holding his breath.” Negligent homicide is still homicide.

Recall, folks, that this is being written about Pete Buttigieg. Pique of this heat in this situation seems totally unjustified, unless you perceive Buttigieg’s comments as a form of blasphemy. It is as if Buttigieg gave a Christian sermon without mentioning God or Jesus, or listed only five Commandments. It’s one thing to observe that someone’s analysis is incomplete. It’s another to read that incompleteness as a kind of willful denial, sit in fury, and tar someone as a lying MF guilty of negligent homicide. As I’ve said before, this sort of response is more religious than rational; it bypasses the bounds of logic into the realm of imposed liturgy, of ritual: We are less to think than to pose and follow.

Yesterday, Buttigieg was large enough to actually telephone Harriot, upon which they had what The Root billed as a “productive” conversation. However, this verdict is based on the assumption that Buttigieg had something to apologize for and needed to be “schooled” on how structural racism works. That is based on a kabuki version of race relations, all about striking poses. Buttigieg has made it glaringly obvious in countless ways that he understands structural racism. He also understands the rituals of our current race debate, amid which, as a candidate for president, it will serve him well to seek out Harriot to “listen” and “acknowledge.”

If Pete Buttigieg has done anything that reveals him as an MF, it was not that night in 2011.